The #MeToo movement which began in Hollywood, has effectively swept out the older, entrenched white male dominated system, but can its more diverse inheritors buck the ingrained system? By Kalundi Serumaga
The most critical thing to bear in mind about the American mainstream film industry, popularly referred to as ‘Hollywood’, is that it functions largely by projecting an illusion to mask its real self. This is quite appropriate, I suppose, for an industry whose foundational human resource is actors.
Hollywood has acquired a presence bordering on the hegemonic, at least in the English-knowing parts of the world, and a little beyond. However, the truth is that Hollywood is neither the world’s largest single film industry (that title goes to India), nor the oldest (Mexico’s is).
It’s just that if you are able to speak English you have a greater chance of being understood at some level in a wider variety of spaces across the planet, than perhaps in any other language. Hollywood’s global reach lies in its greater capacity for cultural penetration.
#MeToo, a social movement that germinated elsewhere, but blossomed in Hollywood, has emerged to challenge aspects of Hollyywood’s internal culture. Many leading and substantial personalities, often white, usually male, have been toppled from where they had perched for decades as industry stalwarts.
This has had an effect reaching far beyond Hollywood, taking on the appearance of a global movement. As a result, Americans are again basking in the self-promoting delusion of being the leaders in a global struggle for ‘freedom’.
The reality is that American film-making is a highly corporate activity. In such an atmosphere, the storyteller’s habits of experimentation and truth-telling are curtailed. The problem is that while a good story tells itself, a bad story needs a lot of assistance. And Hollywood truly cannot tell good stories. That would unsettle the interests embedded in its business model.
Instead, it relies on technical skills to tell a familiar tale over and over again in a new engaging way to keep holding an audience. The logistical implications of that, in terms of equipment and skilled labour, are immense, as are, therefore, the financial implications. In short, a new project requires a large outlay to begin with, and provable assurances that even if there is no profit, there will certainly be no losses.
This has led to three things: First, a heavy dependence on outside financing: a complex web of arrangements for sourcing cash, insurance and credit lies at the heart of its managerial operations.
Second, a standardised set of products in regimented formatting. A number of genres are programmed for production, each offering a number of fixed content certainties to suit the tastes of market-tested audience sub-groups.
Third, a friendly relationship with political power. Hollywood puts itself in the service of American power by providing cultural propaganda to help sanitise the real workings of a brutal and discriminatory politico-economic system.
The preponderance of heroic military stories in American cinema is neither accidental nor a coincidence: it is an output of a Faustian pact with American power. In return for allowing the US Department of Defense the final say on script content, studio executives can get wide access to US military facilities, equipment and skilled labour, thus saving a fortune in production costs.
An illusion of ‘freshness’ is then maintained through a constant process of replenishing and repackaging the message and imagery to make it appear ‘original’ once again. There is a constant process of co-option of aesthetic styles, music, fashions and fads, subjects and concerns that began life outside the Hollywood system, but are then stolen into it for wider mass consumption.
Another method is to market actors as the product. The promotion of a ‘star system’ meant that in financing, a project could be sold on the basis of which popular actor was willing to star in it. Once made, the film is then marketed to the public on the same premise. So a film would become popular because of the star in it, and not the other way round.
It is from this third group that the trouble is now coming. Armed with sometimes substantial individual wealth, as well as large public profiles, actors, directors and writers who have benefitted from the Hollywood system have sought to politicise the nature of their new status. Despite their generally inferior levels of education and even a lack of real intelligence, many took up various social causes. It was only a matter of time before some would focus also on the long-standing poor work conditions within the industry.
In this atmosphere, men exploit women, the old exploit the youth, culturally powerful racial groups exploit the weaker ones and the rich exploit the poor. It was a culture of basically, bullying.
#MeToo symbolises a revolt against both the working conditions, as well as against the reinforcing of standardised messaging about all manner of kinds of social life, which bolstered the mindset behind those conditions.
For a long time, Hollywood both fed off, and reinforced the notion of whiteness (specifically American) as being the human norm, and central standard of human appearance, behaviour and thought.
This also promoted the various negative notions about other groups of humans around the planet. Finally, it cemented a view of women, and their relationship to men, within a particular white and male understanding. Out of this was born an industry that has become a multi-billion-dollar global behemoth.
Cover up of the real story
But the system peddles lies primarily as part of the grand cover-up of the real story of the US. This is the highest form of corruption. To expect such a workplace to then have respectful and considerate work conditions for its human resource is illogical. If the product is corrupt, then so will be the process that creates it.
“The real problem is that the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are fundamentally incompatible,” Antony Beevor, a British cinema expert explained in a UK Guardian newspaper article: “Hollywood has to simplify everything according to set formulae…. Feature films also have to have a whole range of staple ingredients if they are to make it through the financing, production and studio system to the box office.”
How much credit the various banks and hedge funds have extended to them, and on what terms, could provide us with a good picture of the amount of leverage non-artistic interests have over the creative process, and therefore also on the general conditions of work.
What strategies will the new regime, then, have to adopt to get their ‘diversity’ content through the locked-in corporate relationship of military and financial muscle on one end, and a pre-programmed mass audience on the other?
Will their stated goal of diversity actually extend to better presentations of non-white (including Arab Muslim) people, in defiance of both the military script-approvers as well as those financiers who benefit from this racism?
As many a post-colonial African leader discovered: the challenge was not in taking power; it was in finding out that power does not lie where you thought it did. NA